Three and out
A&M defense holds the line despite early criticism
Published: Tuesday, October 2, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, October 2, 2012 03:10
For a majority of college football fans, the Southeastern Conference brings to mind two things: physical defenses and national championships. SEC coaches, who have secured the past six national titles, believe there is a correlation between defensive strength and claiming the crystal ball in January.
For the Aggies to match the standards set by its competition, the defense will have to stand its ground. And so far, somewhat surprisingly, it has.
While the firework-spouting Aggie offense — with freshman sensation Johnny Manziel behind the wheel — has drawn national attention, the defensive unit under first-year coordinator Mark Snyder has quietly been waging an above-average campaign in a conference of defensive excellence.
Snyder and Sumlin threw a new scheme at their players, switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3 multiple defense — and the personnel have responded. Through four games, the A&M defense has yielded 11.8 points per game, good for third in the SEC and eighth nationally. For a coaching unit largely lifted from a University of Houston team known for a breakneck tempo and high-flying passing attacks, the defensive success is a pleasant surprise for the coaching staff. Offensive-minded head coach Kevin Sumlin’s team has lived up to the billing with the ball in its hands, putting up 48.2 points per game, which slots first in the SEC and seventh nationally.
Senior safety Steven Terrell said the A&M offense benefits the defense in ways one might not expect.
“The tempo of our offense and the way they spread it around is good practice for us,” Terrell said. “We feel if we can defend our offense we can defend any offense.”
Residual memories of last season’s leaky secondary remain, and critics can point to the more than 500 yards tallied by Arkansas on Saturday in the 58-10 A&M win. According to Terrell, who picked off a pair of Arkansas passes on the rainy afternoon, the Razorback yardage statistics were all according to plan.
“Our biggest thing was staying on top of them and making sure [Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson] doesn’t get behind us,” Terrell said. “Overall, I think we did a good job of containing them. We knew we might give up a lot of yards but as long as we didn’t give up the deep ball we knew we were going to win.”
Closer to the line, senior linebacker Jonathon Stewart said he wasn’t happy with the gaudy yardage totals.
“We still gave up 500 yards of offense and that’s unacceptable,” Stewart said.
Missed tackles have plagued the defense at key junctures in the young season, particularly in the SEC opener, a 17-20 loss to Florida. Sumlin said that comes with the territory in the SEC.
“In the league we're in now, they are going to force your [cornerbacks] to not be finesse players and cover guys, they're going to have to be physical guys and have to tackle,” Sumlin said.
In practice, forcing turnovers has been a point of emphasis for Snyder’s unit. Against Arkansas, the Aggie defense forced three takeaways, including the two interceptions by Terrell. Sumlin said plays like those made by senior safety are integral for future success.
“We’ve been talking since we’ve been here about game-changing plays,” Sumlin said. “Those kinds of things aren’t just turnovers but they’re game changers. We made some plays. We competed with balls in the air, we knocked down some balls and made some turnovers.”
Snyder said another focus thus far has been forcing long third downs.
“[Third downs are] the key to getting your offense the football,” Snyder said. “We want to get the offense as many touches as we can and we will get an explosion of points. Getting off the field is very crucial."
Stewart said Aggie fans haven’t seen much of the defense, and that’s a good thing.
“We're getting off the field at a remarkable rate,” Stewart said. “If we can continue with our velocity with stopping them on first and second down, regardless of what personnel they have in the game, and as long as we do what we need to do, we should have control on defense.”
Selflessness matters, according to junior defensive lineman Damontre Moore, whose six sacks slot him in a tie for eighth nationally.
“I’m happy that I get [sacks], but if I do my assignment right I’m just as happy,” Moore said. “At the end of the day, the goal is to bring joy and a good name to Texas A&M.”
It is of note that the two SEC opponents the Aggies have faced rank in the bottom half of the conference in scoring. A&M’s other two opponents were SMU and South Carolina State, whose offenses don’t have the potency or talent as upcoming opponents Alabama and Mississippi State.
Stewart said if the defense focuses on key areas, their goals would be in reach.